The percentage of obese girls in the United States increased more than twice as much as the %age of obese boys from 2003 to 2007, according to a study by researchers at the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

The study, Changes in State-Specific Childhood Obesity and Overweight Prevalence in the United States from 2003 to 2007,is the first to examine changes in obesity and overweight prevalence rates on a state-by-state basis. It confirmed some previously known risk factors for obesity in children and found a relatively higher prevalence of obesity and overweight children and adolescents in the South.


The findings, published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, show that while obesity prevalence among all children increased by 10% nationwide from 14.8% in 2003 to 16.4% in 2007, it increased by 18% for female children.


States such as Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee were in the top 20% of childhood obesity rates with prevalence exceeding 20%, while states such as Oregon and Wyoming in the Western region had the lowest obesity rates with a prevalence of about 10%. The geographic disparities in obesity prevalence increased between 2003 and 2007.


Children in several states in the South are at twice the risk of becoming obese than children in Oregon, which had the lowest prevalence rate said the study’s lead author, Dr. Gopal K. Singh, of HRSA’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau.


If geographic disparities continue to rise, they could have negative effects on any future efforts to reduce health inequalities, Singh added.


The study based on children aged 10 to 17 was the first to present geographic differences over time among individual states and used extensive individual, household, and neighborhood data from two large, nationally representative cross-sectional surveys conducted under the overall direction and sponsorship from HRSA and conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also analyzed overweight prevalence among children and adolescents.


Interestingly, the numbers coincide with declining youth participation – particularly among girls – in outdoor activities, according to the most recent data from The Outdoor Foundation. Participation in outdoor recreation among boys and girls dropped in 2008 among ages 6 to 12, 13 to 17, and 18 to 24. Over the past three years, youth participation among girls and boys ages 6 to 12 has decreased the sharpest, falling among girls from 77% to 58% and among boys from 79% to 69%, according to the foundation’s Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2009.
Overweight and obesity are labels for ranges of weight that are greater than what is generally considered healthy for a given height. The terms also identify ranges of weight that have been shown to increase the likelihood of certain diseases and other health problems.  This study analyzed heights and weights of children as reported by their parents during the surveys.

Study findings included the following:

  • While overweight prevalence among the total population did not increase significantly between 2003 and 2007, it increased 9 % among female children. 
  • Overweight prevalence varied from a low of 23.1% in Utah to a high of 44.5% in Mississippi. 
  • Obesity prevalence nearly doubled among female children in Arizona and Kansas.

The study observed links between changes in childhood obesity prevalence and selected sociodemographic, behavioral and neighborhood characteristics. It found that the risks of obesity or overweight increased significantly in relation to decreased household income, lower neighborhood access to parks or sidewalks, lower levels of physical activity, and increased television viewing time and computer use.

The authors are recommending that prevention programs not only aim to reduce physical inactivity and screen time, but also include policies that improve the broader social and physical environments that put children at higher risk of poor diet, inactivity and sedentary activities.